Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Response to Tom Gilson's Open Letter to Peter Boghossian

After tweeting some about my excitement for Peter Boghossian's new best-selling book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, a Christian apologist and leader in campus ministry efforts named Tom Gilson contacted me, inviting me to read a series of thirteen posts on his blog addressing Boghossian and the book. Gilson runs a website called The Thinking Christian, which appears to be a very popular Christian apologetics site. Talking with Gilson on Twitter led to an offer for me to read through his posts about Boghossian and to write a response, which I've done, published below.

To Tom Gilson, in response to your open letter to Peter Boghossian,

Richard Dawkins astutely notes in The Magic of Reality, a delightful book meant to be read at the kids' table (have you seen it?), that the methods of faith rely upon tradition, revelation, and authority. I do not expect that this observation is controversial, and I hope it matches with your understanding of faith--the "trust in a reliable source" from Augustine, which you mention in your open letter to Boghossian, referencing David Marshall. To be clear, I'm rather sure we agree that trust in a reliable way of knowing, which may be called a "source" at times, is a sufficient grounds to make some kind of qualified knowledge claim.

We will diverge here in whatever agreement we have on this assessment, of course, since the point that Dawkins makes plain is that these sources of knowledge are evidentially not reliable and deserve none of the trust Augustine and others have extended to them. That is, I don't have a problem with a definition of faith like Augustine's, but the rub is in that word "reliable." To claim to know something as trust in unreliable sources, maybe you agree could best be called "pretending to know something one does not know," at least when it is something held with conviction--a key feature that distinguishes faith from simply being mistaken.

To the best I'm able to understand him, though he phrases it differently, Boghossian's point is exactly the same: faith is not a reliable way of knowing (that is, faith is not a reliable epistemology for claiming knowledge) because it relies solely upon what those outside faith traditions recognize to be unreliable methods. Tradition, revelation, and authority, even when wrapped up in the cleverest literary analysis, are wonderful tools for making ad hoc rationalizations of evidence, or, as I have called it, "evidence misattributed." These three, however, are terrible tools for making propter hoc explanations of evidence.

It seems clear that you have some understanding of this point, since repeatedly within your rather obsessive series of posts about Boghossian, you assert that Christian faith fails Boghossian's definition. Indeed, you dedicate a number of your posts, in part or entirely, to separating Christian faith, which you argue has nothing to fear from such an analysis, and Boghossian's description of faith in general. Surely, then, you do not accept that Christian faith proceeds merely from tradition, revelation, and authority? Or do you, since those three elements seem to serve as the backbone for how you understand faith, which you rest upon Christian scripture and doctrine and the ensuing cultural usage of the word that follows?

In fact, as I read it, you must not only get your faith from evidence but also your entire Christian view of the world. The relevant question, then, to put it to you, is how can you know that what you call evidence (for your take on Christianity) is not evidence misattributed to your admittedly biased view of the world? I contend that you do not know this because you cannot know it. After all, if there is no God, or if Christianity is at its roots false, then there is simply no evidence for God, or evidence for Christianity, respectively. In these cases, there is only evidence misattributed to them.

What about us?

Of course, tu quoque: How can I know--or how can Peter Boghossian know--that what we call evidence is not evidence misattributed to our own worldviews? The big point is that we cannot, just as you cannot, but we are in a good position to assess the width of the epistemic gaps between the evidence and our speculations about it because we lack the conviction of faith. The widths of these gaps tell us how confident we can be in claiming knowledge, with narrower gaps meaning we can speak with more confidence, and we can assess them by examining falsifiable hypotheses with empirical methods. In other words, we can be can be confident in what we claim to know by examining them in a way that tries to reveal how the evidence is telling us that we might be wrong. It's a lingering curiosity for me, perhaps that you have insights into, what methods faith employs to try to disconfirm its claims about reality.

In many cases, by this approach we can assess with remarkable precision how confidently we can claim to know something, the salience being rooted not just in explanatory capacity but also predictive power. As an industrial and organizational psychologist, you not only must understand this but have to have a keen appreciation of the statistical methods that define it--confidence intervals provide the meaning in my usage of that term. We, then, can claim what knowledge we claim in exactly the same way and with the same qualifications that you would claim to know something from a published result in your field of psychology, nothing less and nothing more.

For example, you are sure to be able to claim to know a great deal about the roles of various incentives on employee motivation, and you know that you can claim to know those things because you have reliable methods for determining them. For us, it's the same, but we do not (actually cannot) claim to know things that cannot be validated by methods of those kinds--and neither should you. This is a key difference between faith, which gives more than the evidence warrants, and more reliable epistemologies.

Hopefully it is clear that epistemic gaps of this kind are far narrower than those arising from the traditions, revelations, and authority of other people who also lacked a reliable method to determine if they were misattributing the evidence they claimed in a way that favored their convictions. In contrast, Boghossian's position of informed skepticism can only misattribute evidence to bad scientific or philosophical models, which he readily admits he's not committed to beyond the warrant of the evidence that supports them.

A good example here would be gauge theory from physics--the Standard Model gives us great predictions but may turn out to be the wrong explanation. The epistemic gaps here are quite narrow, so we're justified in using it as knowledge qualified by the resulting confidence. Still, we may be mistaken. If so, when the evidence warrants it, we are free to abandon the Standard Model for something that does better by the evidence; we're simply not convicted to any particular model. Honestly, if we really want to be able to get anything right, we have to be in such a position, which exposes the conviction, that is, faith, as the core of the problem.

Thus, for us, and really for you in all things except your religious faith, it isn't a question of how we claim to know that we are not misattributing evidence. Our entire process of evaluating hypotheses about the world is to consider what degrees of confidence we can put on knowledge claims and then to believe and act accordingly. No doubt you do the same, but with a cognitive bias like religious faith in place, I hope to convince you with this letter that you err when it comes to your faith.

The key principle: plausibility unwarranted by evidence

The key and relevant principle is that faith, seen as a cognitive bias (my own definition for it, which Boghossian cites on p. 36 of his Manual), leads someone to commit the error of naming what is merely possible as plausible, likely, or certain, and doing so specifically in a way that is unwarranted by the evidence. To be clear, the quality of the warrant on our knowledge claims is determined by the falsification process, an ongoing attempt to find better, more accurate knowledge, and it is never entirely certain. Further, it depends upon it, for we are all fraught with biases that must be overcome if we are to justly claim knowledge. If I'm right in calling faith a cognitive bias, my question for you is how you can know that you do not employ this bias to blind you to the fact that you're biased.

Now, I see Boghossian's "pretending to know" definition of faith to be a snappier variant on exactly this idea: that without rigorous and cautious methods, we cannot claim to know anything except the subjective experience of our lives. To claim general knowledge from subjective experience fits the definition of "pretending," whatever rhetorical malfeasance you accuse him of for the use of the word. In my opinion, being convicted to an idea unwarranted by the evidence--and often despite it--also fits the definition of "pretending," a point I expect you'd agree with if we weren't talking about your beliefs.

Incidentally, in case you didn't notice, if you replace "pretending" in Boghossian's definition with "claiming," you get an effectively identical meaning without quite so much rhetorical punch, so I'll merit you one small point in noticing the usefulness of rhetoric. No doubt you are already aware of that too, though, since you are likely to be a fan of Paul and his epistles. Whatever Paul lacked in knowledge claims warranted by evidence he made up for in spades with rhetoric, and I hardly think this point is controversial. Paul is famous for it and changed the world with it.

As I draw to a close, I will reiterate the key idea: Faith, as we see it from outside, is a mechanism by which a believer gives greater plausibility to a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence. This isn't controversial. You, I expect, do it unblinkingly for Hindu claims about the monkey-god Hanuman, for example, and would agree in that case with what I argue in the fifth chapter of my book God Doesn't; We Do--that the only plausibility for the God hypothesis warranted by the evidence is almost surely zero.

If an almost sure zero chance is what you assign to Hanuman, Mbombo, or Virachocha but not to the Christian God, I fear you may be using your faith-based cognitive bias to misattribute the evidence. You do agree with me in the other cases that anything higher than "no chance" doesn't have the epistemological grounding it needs to be getting on with, don't you? Given that, I hardly grudge Peter Boghossian for using the rhetorically punchy, though accurate, word "pretending."

I think you'd do better not only to drop this particular case against him, but also to stop claiming to know what you do not know and repudiate all faith-based epistemologies--Christianity among those.

With kind regards,
James A. Lindsay

Edit: I had meant to include a link to Mr. Gilson's assessment of my "Boghossification" of some of the Catechism of Trent (link to my piece). If interested, you can see what he thinks about it here.

1 comment:

  1. "My faith is not blind believing, because is based in evidence..."
    My pretension of knowing about things I don't know is not blind believing, because is based in *pretended* evidence (evidence that really is not)...